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Research Trends: LD From the Inside - Children's Voices on the Internet

Researchers analyzed thousands of email exchanges between kids to get the insider view of life with a learning disability.

By Marshall Raskind, Ph.D.

What's new in the world of research related to children with learning and attention difficulties? In this summary of current peer-reviewed research, Marshall Raskind, Ph.D., shares his expert perspective in practical terms for parents like you.

Although research in learning disabilities (LD) has grown considerably over the last several decades, few studies have captured the child's "inner experience" of living with an LD (i.e., the personal meaning of living with an LD as expressed directly by the children themselves). Some studies have attempted to reveal the "child's voice," however, they tend to have small numbers of participants and use interview techniques within artificial settings that do not foster free and uninhibited expression of the LD experience.

The Internet is emerging as a new venue for conducting research on the experience of children with LD. The fact that so many of our nation's youth now communicate with peers over the Internet creates a potential window from which to view the inner life of children with LD. This virtual, but authenticworld, where children exchange electronic communications on topics of personal significance and interest in what they consider to be a comfortable and safe environment, may provide researchers with a rich, new information source for capturing the children's voices and ultimately gaining a deeper understanding of what it is like to live with an LD.

Research Study Spotlight

Based on this line of thinking, my colleagues Dr. Malka Margalit and Dr. Eleanor Higgins and I launched an Internet-based study of LD from the "inside." We assumed that youth with LD would regard the Internet as a safe environment, allowing them to present and share the personal meaning of their LD. Our assumption evolved from previous research 1, 2 that indicated people using the Internet are inclined to reveal their "true selves" online and often disclose more about themselves than in face-to-face "real world" interactions. We believed that by studying the online messages of children and teens with LD that we could develop a deeper and richer understanding of their thoughts, feelings, and attitudes - both positive and negative. Further, we thought the study of their online communications would provide a portal from which to view their hopes, fears, needs, joys, as well as difficulties and frustrations.

Our research3 examined children's presentations of the "LD experience" as expressed in their online messages written on a pre-existing public website designed for children with learning and attention problems (SparkTop.org™). We reviewed and analyzed 4,903 email messages sent from the 164 self-identified LD participants, ages 9-18, to other users on the site over a period of approximately eighteen months. These messages had been sent to other self-identified LD participants, registered users who did not "identify" themselves as having LD, and guests. Messages sent to four animated fictionalized characters were also reviewed. These fictionalized characters are based on three actual teenagers ("teen mentors") who have LD, as well as an adult doctoral-level "LD expert."

Six major themes emerged from the analysis of children's messages:

  • LD identity
  • Disclosure of academic difficulties
  • Disclosure of emotional attitudes
  • Disclosure of social/interpersonal issues
  • Asking for help
  • Positive aspects of having LD

Next we'll explore each of these themes in detail.

Marshall H. Raskind, Ph.D., is a learning disability researcher. He is a frequent presenter at international LD conferences and is the author of numerous professional publications on learning disabilities. He is well-known for his research on assistive technology and longitudinal studies tracing LD across the life span.


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